CHICAGO — The Champions Classic has been around for seven years. While the star power and matchups are compelling, the event itself often has played out like the November basketball that it is.
In six previous iterations, there have been exactly two one-possession games and not a single overtime or memorable finish. There have been more double-digit victories, including a 32-point rout of Kansas by Kentucky in 2014, than close encounters.
More to the point, if NCAA tournament success is the bottom line, this event has produced only two champions: Kentucky (2012) and Duke (2015). There have been more first-round NCAA losers from the Champions field — shoutouts to Lehigh, Mercer and Middle Tennessee — and Kentucky was one-and-done in the NIT the year after its last title.
But the 2017-18 season feels a bit special, at least on the court, and no one in the sport would be surprised if multiple teams that gathered here on Tuesday are playing five months from now in San Antonio’s Final Four. Let’s take the participants, in order of the matchups, and plot their most likely path and pitfalls between now and April:
The baby Blue Devils overcame some sloppy early moments and an injury to Marvin Bagley III to pull away from Michigan State. Those picking youth over experience in April have to be feeling pretty good about a team that only figures to get better.
Depending on the draw at the PK80 tournament in Portland, Oregon, over Thanksgiving and the holiday weekend, Duke will be favored in every remaining regular-season game, except at North Carolina and maybe at Miami (Fla.). The Devils go on the road in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge but get rebuilding Indiana. The rest of the schedule, even by ACC standards, is benign.
In other words, an ACC title and NCAA No. 1 seed are extremely likely. The last time that happened, Duke won it all in 2015. Few would bet against it today.
Probably season outcome: Final Four
If Miles Bridges is going to be a Wooden Award contender — and if Michigan State is going to be a national player — the Spartans’ star has to take more than three shots in the first half of a marquee matchup. It’s one thing to defer and another to disappear for stretches. Bridges picked it up in the second half, but his star was clearly outshined by Duke’s Grayson Allen.
The good news for Michigan State is that Tom Izzo’s teams often take a few early lumps before hitting their stride later in the year. We’ll know more after Notre Dame visits East Lansing at the end of the month. But the Big Ten slate doesn’t look as friendly today for Sparty as it once did.
The Spartans are still more likely than not to earn a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, but Tuesday’s outing was an uneven performance that will linger — especially if they end up facing Duke a second time in March or April.
Probable season outcome: Final Four
The Jayhawks are the Atlanta Braves of college basketball, and there was nothing on the floor Tuesday night to change that view: Kansas wins Big 12 titles (13 in a row), piles up No. 1 seeds (seven of the past 11 years) and falls short in the NCAA tournament (one national title in the Bill Self era, as if that’s a bad thing).
The Jayhawks were good, not great, against what could have been a not-ready-for-prime-time Kentucky team. They left a possible blowout on the table in the first half, then had to scratch and claw down the stretch to hold off the Wildcats. Kansas’ offensive polish — or more accurately, Kentucky’s lack of same in key spots — was the difference.
If and when Kansas wins the Big 12 again, that should be good enough for no worse than a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. But this is not a Final Four team on paper; more concerning is that, even in victory, it wasn’t on the court, either.
Probably season outcome: Sweet 16
The Wildcats are a far cry from a finished product. Yet they fought their way to a late-possession game against the Jayhawks. Kentucky looks like a possible overachiever in March. The last time that was the case, Julius Randle and the Harrison twins took a No. 8 seed to the national championship game.
The main problem is that Kentucky might not be the best team in the SEC. Florida and Texas A&M lead the deepest and best group of challengers from that conference in a long time. The Wildcats might not like their seed, but they figure to be more tested than usual once the NCAAs begin.
Two words kept coming to mind for Kentucky as Tuesday’s game unfolded: Buy low.
Probable season outcome: Elite Eight
All told, a repeat of the 2014-15 season — when three teams from the Champions Classic reached the Final Four in Indianapolis — doesn’t compute. After Kentucky’s expected 40-0 coronation was thwarted by Wisconsin, few might remember that season’s other national semifinal, in which Duke repeated its November drubbing of Michigan State.
After Tuesday’s performance, the Spartans can only hope history does not repeat itself. Kansas and Kentucky, meanwhile, are thankful it’s still November.